Mitt Romney, Nikki Haley and the Endorsement Derby

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So Mitt Romney just won the endorsement of South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. Clearly a big deal, right? Newt Gingrich is beating him by 17 points in the latest poll out of the state, which could be a crucial barometer of conservative sentiment if Newt hangs onto his vaporous lead in Iowa and Romney cruises through New Hampshire as expected. But that’s not why Haley’s endorsement matters.

There’s some fun history here. Haley backed Romney in 2008 when few had heard of her. In South Carolina’s 2010 gubernatorial primary, Sarah Palin’s late endorsement got the ink–remember “mama grizzlies”?–but it was Romney returning the favor that had a legitimizing effect. It was a gamble on Romney’s part, too: The field of candidates was large and Haley wasn’t the establishment favorite. Romney, laying track for his next presidential run, risked displeasing the eventual governor of the key early primary state. Haley pulled it out in the end, of course, and now there’s a nice tale of favors repaid. Heartwarming, but still not the important part.

The real story doesn’t actually have to do with Haley specifically, or really even just the South Carolina primary, which Romney will still probably lose if the race is heavily contested in mid-January. It’s that Romney is absolutely crushing the endorsement primary, Haley being the latest exhibit, and no matter how far ahead some polls might have put Newt Gingrich in recent weeks, history suggests Romney will be a near lock unless someone really beats the pants off him early on.

In their book The Party Decides, political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel and John Zaller explain that in aggregate, endorsements from established party officials are one of the best early indicators of whom primary voters will choose. Here’s how they game out the wider effect:

We view this pattern as evidence that partisan voters taking cues from the endorsements of partisan insiders. Because the media do not report summary measures of insider endorsements, it is not clear how exactly the cue diffuses through the population. We suppose that an aura or buzz develops around the insider favorite, as millions of partisans sense that the message from party officials, activists, and interest-group leaders is that, for example, “George W. Bush is our guy in this contest.” If voters can, as evidence shows, respond to expectations about who is likely to win, they should also be able to respond to national party cues. Indeed the two messages may be, in some degree different frames for the same information.

National party cues are at once powerful and fragile. They powerful in that they can lead just about everyone–voters, journalists, donors, volunteers–to regard the favored candidate as not only right for the party, but inevitable. And, indeed, this sense of inevitability is not incorrect: No candidate who became the clear endorsement front-runner in the period since 1980 to 2004 failed to win nomination. When parties have failed to control nominations, it has been they failed to agree on a front-runner, not because voters disregarded their cue. But the national cue is still fragile in that, if an insurgent manages to break through in the early primary states, much of the cue’s effect may dissipate and the front-runner will suddenly find himself or herself in danger of defeat. This was the case for Walter Mondale in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1992, Bob Dole, and perhaps even George W. Bush in 2000, all of whom faced break-through insurgents who might have beaten them.

So how far ahead is Romney? He now has the support of one vanquished presidential candidate, four governors, seven U.S. Senators and 45 U.S. House Reps., according to Democracy In Action. Gingrich, meanwhile, has the backing of one governor and eight congressmen. Of those nine elected officials, six are from his home state of Georgia. Even Rick Perry’s bench is deeper.

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